The Tet Offensive of 1968 was a decisive and psychological turning point of the Vietnam War. Communist forces across the country attacked the U.S. and South Vietnamese forces, which emerged victorious. However, the offensive convinced many in the United States that increased U.S. intervention would not break the will of the communists. Before the Tet Offensive, the question was how to win the Vietnam War; after Tet, the question was how to disengage from the war even if it hadn't been won.
By 1967, the war in Vietnam had become a bloody stalemate. In June of that year, a public opinion poll revealed that for the first time, more Americans opposed the war than supported it. At the same time, President Lyndon B. Johnson's popularity had dropped to below 40%. Faced with this situation, the president initiated a "success campaign" to convince the American people that U.S. forces were making headway in the war. As part of that campaign, Johnson brought Gen. William C. Westmoreland, commander of all U.S. forces in Vietnam, home in late 1967 to make the administration's case before Congress and the American people. In a speech, Westmoreland announced that "we have reached a point where the end begins to come into view." For the time being, Westmoreland's pronouncement helped calm the American public.
However, as Westmoreland made his assurances in the U.S., the communist Viet Cong (VC) and North Vietnamese forces were preparing for a massive offensive in Vietnam that would prove to be the turning point in the long war. The new campaign was designed to provoke a general uprising among the people in the south, shatter the South Vietnamese armed forces, and convince the U.S. that the war was unwinnable. The offensive would be launched in early 1968 during Tet, Vietnam's most important holiday, when most of the South Vietnamese soldiers would be visiting family away from their units. The plan called for simultaneous attacks on U.S. bases and South Vietnamese cities and towns. Priority targets would be previously untouched urban centers, such as Saigon, Da Nang, and Hue.
During the fall of 1967, Northern forces attacked allied positions in the remote regions along South Vietnam's borders with Cambodia and Laos to draw U.S. forces away from the urban areas that would be struck during the offensive. At the same time, the communists launched a massive propaganda campaign in the south to set the conditions for a popular uprising by the South Vietnamese population once the offensive was launched. On January 21, 1968, 20,000 North Vietnamese troops surrounded and attacked the Marine base at Khe Sanh, hoping to further divert U.S. attention away from the urban areas as his forces moved to their attack positions.
The communists' main offensive was set to commence on January 31. However, there was some confusion and the offensive was launched prematurely on January 30. This provided advance warning for U.S. and South Vietnamese defenders, who went on alert and moved to blocking positions in key areas.
In the early morning hours of January 31, the remaining VC and North Vietnamese forces launched a massive countrywide attack in South Vietnam. During the initial 48 hours of the offensive, more than 80,000 communist troops mounted near-simultaneous assaults on 36 of 44 provincial capitals, 5 of 6 major cities, 64 district capitals, and more than 50 hamlets. Even with the warning provided by the premature attacks, the allies were not prepared for the scope of the offensive.
Saigon, which had not seen much combat before 1968, was attacked from several directions. The most spectacular attack in the city was launched against the U.S. Embassy. During a six-hour battle, the VC were all killed or captured, and the security of the embassy was reestablished. Although the attack on the embassy had failed, the VC had demonstrated that there was no place in Vietnam that was secure from attack.
Some of the fiercest fighting of the offensive took place in the Battle of Hue. On January 31, VC and North Vietnamese soldiers seized the city. The U.S. Marines and South Vietnamese forces counterattacked to retake the city. The bloody house-to-house fighting lasted for a month, resulting in heavy casualties for both sides and leaving most of the city in ruins.
Even though the Tet Offensive took the Americans and South Vietnamese by surprise, their forces recovered quickly. By the end of March, the initial phase of the offensive was over. There had been no spontaneous revolt by the South Vietnamese. The communists had failed to capture or hold on to any of the major objectives they had attacked. During the heavy fighting, the North Vietnamese Army and VC had suffered more than 40,000 killed and 5,800 captured. By any measurement, the communist forces had sustained a major defeat.
Media Coverage and its Impact
Despite the clear outcome of the offensive on the battlefield, the media coverage of the intense fighting and destruction had a tremendous impact on Johnson, the U.S. Congress, and the American people, ultimately prompting a reevaluation of the nation's commitment in Vietnam. The American people were stunned that the communists could launch such a widespread offensive when Johnson and Westmoreland had just assured them that U.S. forces were "turning the corner." Pictures of the close-quarter fighting on television screens and in newspapers clashed with the administration's optimistic reports, shaking the confidence of the American people in their government and its efforts in Southeast Asia.
Johnson, beset by the antiwar movement and challenged politically within his own party, was told by his secretary of defense that there was "no end in sight." On March 31, a demoralized Johnson went on national television and announced a unilateral halt to the bombing of North Vietnam, calling for negotiations to end the war. Then he stunned the nation by saying that he would not run for reelection.
In military terms, the Tet Offensive had been a disaster for the communist VC and North Vietnamese forces, but it clearly showed that the enemy appeared to have an inexhaustible supply of troops willing to fight for the overthrow of the South Vietnamese government. In the end, the Tet Offensive was a psychological victory at the strategic level and proved to be the turning point of the war; after Tet, the problem was not how to win the war but how to disengage.